Thursday, May 19, 2011

Oh, the humanities!

Mac has turned on the Les Baxter, which is what's on when we're Really Grading, but I'm still not ready to take the plunge. Iris sleeps peacefully upstairs, buoyed by friends' warmth and good ideas for whiling away the hours.  So I will let Les lushly coat the room in his languid exotica (with the occasional titillating xylophone note) and think on the evening instead (grading tomorrow, I promise, seniors!).  Whenever I teach the art history senior seminar, I like to have the students over for dinner for a menu designed according to their thesis topics.  Since they get to choose their own topics, the mix can be eclectic - but see what you think. Tonight we had...

White Russians (in honor of a paper on the Moscow Metro)
Shrimp Cocktail (...Las Vegas architecture)
Caesar Salad (... the video game, Dante's Inferno - one anachronism meets another!)
Ribs (...Saint Louis - bones o' the crusaders!)
British Baked Beans (...Damien Hirst - the alternatives were too ghastly)
Apple Pie (...Lilith)
Sachertorte (...Klimt's Adele Bloch-Bauer)

I have a deeper appreciation of the idea of "respite" these days. Aside from being (of course) a medieval word whose first use is recorded by the OED in the 13th century, it has roots (probably) in the Latin "respectus" - to look back.  So respite isn't escape, it isn't forgetting what's happening, or what's troubling us - it's looking back and somehow in doing so, gaining that ephemeral rest or relief.  The question is, how far are you looking back when you're in respite? to before the mayhem? to the mayhem itself but from afar?  In this rush to the finish of the end of the semester, this respite was most welcome.  The students wanted to know much more about Kalamazoo than I could post, so of course I sent them to In the Middle, fount of All Happenings Medieval. I now see that one of today's posts holds humbling words for these words and smile to think of what we talked about at dinner.  Which was Jeffrey Cohen's "radical project to humanize everything."  These were my words (his are better and go, go read them).  What if the act of holding a stone was not just a human act, but a humane one? (and here I should specify that by "humanize" I don't mean anthropomorphize) What if a Breton scientist listening to a stone with a stethoscope was neither poetry nor madness but an act of interpretation based on understanding gained from intimacy in working with rocks for an entire career?  I shouldn't be asking these as rhetorical questions because they're not.  They constitute what I increasingly come to see as the political mission of the humanities - to create/provoke acts of interpretation within discourses that have been relegated to the natural or the established. This, to me, is the core of social change, and the provocative possibilities I see in Jeffrey's work.  Of course stones are inanimate, one says. And yet perspective and interpretation invite you to think differently. Of course women can't work outside the home. And yet... Of course gay people can't get married. And yet... Something nags at me that I am being too literal and pragmatic and prosaic in my approach to these ideas, that I am losing their radicality for thinking beyond the immediate political and social needs, all the while that those are there. I may be pushed to make these claims for this kind of thinking because I teach at a small liberal arts college where a) we are not in competition for big grants from the institution because there aren't any and so, really, interpretive models are the main thing you have to share, and b) you can witness students changing their minds pretty radically even on pragmatic issues. With enough respite we could have both the pragmatic gains and the ideas beyond pragmatism - those just at the beginning of articulation.  Well, Les Baxter's "Harem Silks from Bombay" is prompting some much needed irony, so I'd best stop here and go bed down with Iris for the night.


  1. Oh my gosh, thanks so much for posting those medieval blogs. That Chaucer one is hilarious!

    You've also made me think about going to Kalamazoo one day, for for fun ... I miss medieval art history.

  2. hey there - so glad you're enjoying the blogs - there are some awesome medievalists out there! The Chaucer Blogger (as he was known) was revealed at last year's Kalamazoo - you never know what amazing event awaits there. I've had the pleasure of meeting him and he is a prince of a guy. just so you know: there's a book out of the blog as well (_Chaucer Hath a Blog_ with Palgrave Macmillan).